Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What a mural can tell us about our glorious past

Our glorious past / A mural depicts the famous Key System
electric trains that connected Oakland and San Francisco.

There are many colorful, vivid and fascinating murals that dot the urban landscape in my Oakland neighborhood. While some of them are reminders of the glorious past history of this East Bay city situated across the bay from San Francisco, in particular, one of them depicts the famous Key System electric trains.

Believe me, there's plenty we can learn from studying a single, neo-WPA mural.

The Key Route Plaza mural, a 23-by-14-foot colorful and historic mural created by local artist Rocky Baird in 2005, tells a story about a bygone era of transportation that once connected Oakland and San Francisco, two major northern California cities on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay.

The Key System electric trolley car company established its first transit depot at Key Route Plaza, at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and 41st Street in Oakland, in 1904. The orange and silver train depicted in the mural that is located on what formerly was part of the transit depot is Car No. 159 on the C-Line which, according to a historic plaque, made its final departure from Piedmont Station on April 19, 1958 at 6:45 p.m.

The quixotic creator of the Key Route, Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, is a larger-than-life giant figure shown in the mural. He was a Nevada mining magnate who made his fortune in borax before he lost much of it in transit. The key that he is holding "has three rings at its handle to symbolize three lines to Berkeley, Oakland and Piedmont. The long stem represents the Key Pier, which carried trains about three miles over the bay, and the teeth represent the ferry slip," wrote Sam Whiting in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article.

At its height during the 1940s, the Key System had over 66 miles of track and serviced the hills and dales of Oakland and Berkeley as well as other East Bay cities like Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, El Cerrito, Richmond and Albany.

A historic plaque at the site
of Key Route Plaza.
According to the commemorative plaque at Key Route Plaza, back in 1939 it took the streamlined trains 27 minutes to travel from Oakland's Piedmont Station over the Bay Bridge to the First and Mission Station in "The City." Not bad considering that in 2014 it still takes 20 minutes to travel by light rail transit on BART from MacArthur Station in Oakland to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco.

The Key Route Plaza mural is filled with other symbolism, too. There are sections of the mural in which we see figures representing the Black Power and Women's Suffrage movements as well as a link to U.S. military might and our need for petroleum.

According to the artist, who was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle about the mural, "the mural took two months of research and three months of painting." At a cost of $5,000 to create, Baird sold off the window seats in the train at $500 each to help raise funds.

Today, half of the depot sits idle while it awaits refurbishing into a cafe, while the other half has morphed into a popular municipal parking lot, which tells the fate of a train system that was displaced by the rise and popularity of the automobile.

To learn more about the history of the Key System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_System

To read more about the history of Oakland's electric trains: http://www.oaklandmagazine.com/Oakland-Magazine/January-2008/When-Trains-Ruled-the-East-Bay/

Photos by Michael Dickens ©2014.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History /
Ken Burns in conversation at San Francisco's Castro Theatre.

Why do we cry when we see a Ken Burns documentary? Perhaps, it's because the documentary filmmaker has a remarkable talent for telling stories through real people.

"History is sharing the process of discovery," said Burns, whose 1990 film The Civil War brought him to the forefront of documentary filmmaking in the United States. He is known for his style of using archival footage and photographs. "Preserving the past is one of the greatest things you can do for the future."

Burns, 60, has also directed films about other subjects familiar to Americans, including: Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Central Park Five (2012).

This fall, the Emmy Award-winning Burns returns with a new film that depicts the monumental saga of an exceptional American family whose impact is still felt across the nation.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, a new seven-part, 14-hour documentary directed by Burns and written by Geoffrey C. Ward, will debut nationwide on PBS on September 14. The film weaves together the stories of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of one of the most prominent and influential American political families.

Recently, I had the chance to preview The Roosevelts: An Intimate History during an evening with Ken Burns at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, which was sponsored by KQED, in partnership with Kraw Law Group and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Burns was in San Francisco not only to promote The Roosevelts in front of a captive and enthusiastic audience, but also to interview legendary San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie Mays for a future documentary he is currently working on about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the 1947.

In The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, said Burns, for the first time we truly get to veer into the private lives of the most public of people. And, it's the first time their individuals stories have been interwoven into a single narrative.

Over 20,000 archived photos went into the making of The Roosevelts. We see Theodore, who was once a sickly boy, storm into Washington like an officer charging into battle. We learn of Franklin, struck down by illness, and how he pulls himself back up while at the same time lifting the U.S. out of the Great Depression and World War II. And, we see how Eleanor redefines the role of First Lady while inspiring millions of Americans. The documentary follows the Roosevelts for over a century, from the birth of Theodore in 1858 to Eleanor's death in 1962.

"You can't expect people like that to happen all the time," said historian David McCullough, who appears on camera throughout the documentary. Adds fellow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also appears on screen in The Roosevelts: "It's an extraordinary story. The drama is unmatched in our history."

According to Burns, the story of the Roosevelts raises many questions, such as: "What is the role of government in society?" and "What is heroism?" While it may be impossible to sum up in a sentence or two what Burns learned from working on The Roosevelts, one thing he said he took away from his work is this: FDR had an extraordinary ability to communicate.

The only thing we have to fear ... is fear itself.

"History is a rising road," said Burns. "Human nature is always the same. There at times has been incivility, but what's interesting is what's the same."

To learn more: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Photograph: Michael Dickens ©2014.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The latest chapter in an amazing tennis story

Novak Djokovic kisses the most coveted trophy in tennis after
winning the 2014 Wimbledon gentlemen's singles championship.

You can learn a lot about world-class athletes by the way they comport themselves during an awards ceremony and in post-match interviews. Such was the case following Sunday's nearly-four hour epic Wimbledon gentlemen's singles final between the seven-time champion, Roger Federer, and the world's no. 1 player, Novak Djokovic. It was their 35th meeting and, always, there's familiarity when these two meet on court.

Sunday's match did not produce a storybook finish to this year's Championships at Wimbledon that many, including myself, had hoped for as Djokovic won 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 to prevent Federer from winning an eighth Wimbledon title. However, it did give everyone who witnessed the Centre Court clash of titans, in which Federer came from down 2-5 in the fourth set to win five straight games while holding off one match point, a sense of hope that there are more chapters remaining to be written in Federer's amazing story.

From perspective, Federer knows he can't go on forever and each Grand Slam final is a precious opportunity. He expects a lot of himself. Had Federer, a living legend just a month shy of his 33rd birthday, won on Sunday, he would have become the oldest Wimbledon champion since the beginning of the Open Era in 1968 and his eighth Wimbledon crown would have meant his 18th career Grand Slam title, too.

"It was a great final. I can't believe I made it to five. It wasn't looking good for a while," said Federer, during his on-court interview with the BBC's Sue Barker following the trophy presentation. "Going into a match with Novak, it's always going to be tough and physical. He plays athletic points. I can only say 'congratulations' today. Amazing match; amazing tournament once again. Well deserved.

"I enjoyed myself a lot. See you next year."

Federer and his family have been royalty at Wimbledon's Centre Court since he won the junior boys' title in 1998. This year, his parents, wife Mirka and his twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, attired in matching floral dresses, were all there to bear witness. Always gracious in victory or defeat, the very public Federer shed no tears in accepting his runner-up plate. Later, he said: "It's even more memorable when I see my kids there with my wife and everything. That's what touched me the most, to be quite honest. The disappointment of the match itself went pretty quickly."

Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Djokovic's seventh Grand Slam title was special for him. The way in which he bounced back during the ultimate fifth set against Federer -- overcoming mental and physical frailties -- showed a lot of determination.

When it was time for his name to be called out during the trophy presentation, Djokovic lifted his head and raised his arms to the sky, partly in jubilation and partly as a means of giving thanks. During his post-match interview with Barker, Djokovic fought back a lot of emotions.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer
with their Wimbledon trophies.
"First of all, I want to congratulate Roger for a great tournament and a great fight today," said Djokovic. "It was a great match to be proud of. He's a magnificent champion, a great athlete."

Turning to look Federer in the eye, Djokovic remarked: "I respect your career and everything you've done. Thank you for letting me win today!" It drew a smile from Federer.

Continuing his praise of Federer, Djokovic said: "In important moments, he comes up with his best shots. That's why he's won 17 Grand Slams and is the best in the game. After dropping the fourth set, it wasn't easy to regroup. I had to compose myself and find the necessary energy to win the fifth. I don't know how I managed to do it."

Asked to put winning this year's Wimbledon title into perspective, Djokovic said: "This is the tournament I always dreamed of winning. It's the best tournament in the world, the most valuable one. The first tennis match I ever saw, when I was five-years-old, was Wimbledon. That image has always stuck in my mind. To be able to compete at such a high level, I'm so grateful for this opportunity and to be able to hold this trophy."

Finally, it was time for Djokovic to recognize those who played a role in his victory: "I dedicate it to a few people," he said. "First of all, I would like to dedicate it to my future wife (Jelena Ristic), and our future baby. I'm going to become a father soon. I'm still preparing for that. It's a great joy in life. I would like to dedicate it to my family: my parents, my brother, and all of the family in my team." Djokovic's team included his coach, three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker. "Of course, they've sacrificed a lot of their free time and life in order to live the dream and be where I am at this moment. And, last but not least, I would like to dedicate this title to my first coach that taught me all the basics of tennis shots and behavior and everything I know about tennis, Jelena Gencic. She passed away last year. This is for her."

Djokovic lifted the winner's trophy aloft and kissed it. He was grateful for the opportunity to so publicly share a poignant moment. The Wimbledon final was broadcast to over 180 countries around the world.

Off the court, Djokovic called Sunday's Wimbledon victory "the most special Grand Slam final I've played. At the time in my career, for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row. I started doubting, of course, a little bit. I needed this win a lot."

Looking back on Sunday's championship match with a day's-worth of perspective, one thing is certain. What a treat for tennis fans around the world this year's final provided us with to remember: Five sets of extremely high level of play stretched out over almost four hours -- with lots of resilience and mental and physical fortitude -- was exuded by both athletes. Regardless of whom you wanted to win, you had to admire and appreciate the level of tennis that Djokovic and Federer brought to Centre Court.

No doubt, both players left the Wimbledon grounds with their heads held high.

A postscript: Four days after winning his second Wimbledon title, Novak Djokovic married his long-time girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, in the grounds of Montenegro's Aman Sveti Stefan resort.

Photos courtesy AELTC/Google Images. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Still much drama to come

American true grit / U.S. goalie Tim Howard's 16 saves against
Belgium was the most in a World Cup match since 1966.

If there's one thing I've learned during the first three week's of the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament, it's this: International football (still referred to by most in my country as soccer) is a truly global game, but with a new world order in the making.

Old Europe -- as represented by England, Italy and Spain -- are out. New Europe -- defined by Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland -- are in. Somehow, France just keeps on winning by the slimmest of margins while Germany just plain wins.

Meanwhile, Central and South America, represented by Argentina, upstart Costa Rica and host nation Brazil, have played very well, and Colombia is all business-like in this year's World Cup. Lionel Messi has been, well ... Messi the Great, always a treat to watch when he has the ball on his left foot. He rescues his team -- and, by extension, his country -- when they need him the most. And, both the Canarinho and the Ticos, that's Brazil and Costa Rica, respectively, were blessed to have advanced to the quarterfinals last weekend, thanks to winning on penalty kicks -- the ultimate tie-break experience.

Among those who advanced out of group play, Mexico, Nigeria and Algeria each acquitted themselves nicely and each showed they belonged in the new world order.

Two of the remaining teams, Costa Rica and Colombia, have reached the quarterfinals -- the last eight -- for the first time. There are four repeat teams from four years ago: Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina.

Further north up the Americas, the United States gained a lot of attention and national interest even when it wasn't always winning. On Tuesday, Team USA got its chance to play OT when it fought to a nil-nil tie after 90+ minutes of regulation time against Belgium. Like four years ago when it lost to Ghana, lightening struck twice against the Americans and Belgium scored early during the extra time period en route to a thrilling 2-1 victory in Salvador, Brazil.

Here in the U.S., we're used to clear-cut outcomes in our sporting events. So, imagine our surprise when a recent draw against Portugal felt like a victory and we celebrated after a 1-0 loss to Germany because it still advanced the Stars and Stripes out of their vaunted "Group of Death" and into the "Knockout Round" against Belgium. What we've learned is this: International football can be won by the slimmest of margins and lost by the slimmest of margins, too. And, they play on during stoppage time until the referee blows his whistle.

Sometimes, it's alright to be valiant in defeat.

In describing the Americans' grit following their elimination by Belgium, Jeré Longman wrote in The New York Times: "All the great rush and fevered desperation were spent now, the tension released. Their bodies and chances exhausted, the Americans bent over, collapsed to the ground on their backs, stared ahead at what might have been.

"In another epic game in a mesmerizing World Cup, the United States took Belgium to the edge of its marvelous capability. The Americans absorbed wave after wave of attacks, countered with the fearlessness of youth and survived for long stretches on the gymnastic goalkeeping of Tim Howard, whose dexterous arms and legs seemed to be playing soccer, hockey and basketball all at once."

U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of his team: "I think they all went to their limits." Goalie Tim Howard, still one of the world's best at age 35, made 16 saves Tuesday, the most by a goalie in a World Cup match since 1966. Howard single-handedly kept the game within reach for the Americans.

The U.S. took us for quite a thrilling ride through its four matches: a victory over Ghana, a draw against Portugal, and close losses to Germany and Belgium. "It's really awesome getting through the group, but it means nothing," Howard said before the Belgium match. "The sting of failure is the same if you lose in this round as if you didn't get out of the group."

Collectively, five of the eight Round of 16 games went to extra time, the most since the round was introduced in the 1986 World Cup. Each of the eight games was won by the team that won its group.

Throughout the U.S., there has been been plenty of national attention given the World Cup, coast to coast, from New York to San Francisco, as well as in heartland cities like Kansas City and Chicago. Our eyes have been glued to the action. It's been a national, shared experience for sports fans of all ages. Personally, the World Cup has given me an opportunity to talk international football with Facebook friends from Mexico, Costa Rica and Algeria, and to learn what it's like to be a fan of in each of those countries -- even to care about those teams, too.

ESPN, the U.S.-based global cable and satellite television channel that is primarily owned by The Walt Disney Company, has provided North American fans with tremendous TV coverage, both visually and in its studio and match commentary. In print, The New York Times has devoted countless column inches and pages each day to cover the action on and off the pitch and it's given its readers a keen, socio-economic perspective to the story of this futebol nation, a sport which has helped define Brazil's place in the world.

It's been a pleasure to see, read and learn the fascinating history of the beautiful game, and to listen to the now-familiar voice of Englishman play-by-play commentator Ian Darke calling all of the important matches on ESPN. Darke, a veteran of the network's 2010 World Cup broadcasts, has a wonderful command of the English language and, sometimes -- OK, always -- he enjoys a lovely flair for the dramatic. Last week, in its soccer blog, The San Francisco Chronicle spun its own version of a classic Aesop fable, "If Ian Darke recounted the tale of the tortoise and the hare", that's worth a good read. Meanwhile, there's still much to be said and written about this year's World Cup, which culminates with the championship match on Sunday, July 13. And, there's the beautiful visuals of the Copacabana Beach in Rio, too.

Like an enjoyable West End theatrical, the 2014 FIFA World Cup has had its share of divas and dives as well as its thrills, spills and pratfalls. Yet, with seven matches remaining to decide this year's World Cup champion nation -- and eight countries still very much in contention -- we all look forward to much drama and excitement ahead in the World Cup's next act.

Photo: Courtesy of Google images. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Welcoming the return of summer to our garden

What a lovely thing a rose is! -- Arthur Conan Doyle

All That Jazz / It's summer in our backyard garden and our
All That Jazz roses are blooming brightly.

It's the first week of summer -- sunshine and all -- and a welcoming time indeed.

Last Saturday, the sun arrived at its northernmost point in the sky. With it, we heralded a season of change on Earth as summer officially began in the Northern Hemisphere. As for our neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere, it's their time for winter. No worries, though. Your time for summer will come again, soon.

Now, as the beauty of the morning sun glistens over our backyard garden, it's a delight -- more than ever -- to photograph our summer roses.

Photograph by Michael Dickens, © 2014.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Relishing our wide world of sport

The beautiful game / Relishing our wide world of sport.

What a week it's been to be an international sports fan.

Let's see: Between the FIFA World Cup in football, the Stanley Cup in ice hockey, the NBA Finals in American professional basketball, and the U.S. Open golf championship, which crowned its champion on Father's Day, there's been something for every sports fan to enjoy during the month of June. Add to the mix, Major League Baseball with its pennant races taking shape here in the U.S., and there's just not enough hours in the day to watch everything being shown on TV or now made available for viewing via our mobiles.

It's a beautiful game.
• Thanks to the worldwide interest in international football (known to American audiences as soccer), the quadrennial World Cup tournament in Brazil has become must-see viewing around the globe. Here in the U.S., ESPN (and its sister networks) is broadcasting all 64 matches in this year's tournament, which continues through July 13.

There's new "made for TV" drama unfolding with each match and curiosity is building day by day. It will be interesting to see if the Netherlands can continue its dominance after the Clockwork Oranje dealt Spain a shocking World Cup defeat last Friday with a 5-1 annihilation of La Furia Roja. Also, the Nationalmannschaft of Germany looked very solid as Thomas Müller scored a hat trick during a 4-0 shutout of the Ronaldo-led Portugal on Monday. And, three cheers for the Stars and Stripes as Clint Dempsey scored the fastest goal in U.S. World Cup history (29 seconds) and the Americans beat Ghana 2-1. Of course, host Brazil plays the sport dubbed the beautiful game oh so beautifully, and the Canarinho are a sentimental favorite of many worldwide fans.

• On Friday night in Los Angeles, the Kings became king of ice hockey as they skated to a 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers to capture the NHL Stanley Cup for the second time in three years. It's always a thrill to see the players of the winning team kissing Lord Stanley's Cup and hoisting it proudly above their heads as they jubilantly skate around the rink in celebration. It's an experience every hockey player wants to enjoy at least once in their career.

The Spurs' Parker, Duncan, Ginobili.
• On Sunday night, the San Antonio Spurs showed that it's cool to be a team -- again -- and to play like a team, too. The Spurs beat the star-studded Miami Heat 104-87 to win their fifth NBA Finals championship, thanks to a total team effort from an eclectic roster filled with international flavor, including: Tim Duncan of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Tony Parker of France, Manu Ginobili of Argentina, Patty Mills of Australia, Tiago Splitter of Brazil, Cory Joseph of Canada and Kahwi Leonard of the U.S.

• With the weather heating up across America, the Major League Baseball pennant races are heating up, too. Here in the Bay Area, thanks to San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's compiling the best records in their respective leagues, interest in the Summer Game is filling ballparks on both sides of the Bay nearly every night.

• Lest we forget: The United States Open golf championship crowned a new champion Sunday in Pinehurst, N.C. as Martin Kaymer, a 29-year-old German, won an historic eight-stroke victory in a what many described as a totally dominating performance.

• Finally: The Wimbledon Championships fortnight start next Monday in London SW19 as Scotland's Andy Murray defends his gentlemen's singles title against the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the world's premier grass-court tennis event. Break out the strawberries and cream.

Indeed, it's a time for relishing the spirit and passion of a truly wide world of sport.

Photographs courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

This welcome sight generates wind energy

A glimpse of wind turbines high atop the Altamont Pass.

Driving through the tall, grassy brown hills of the Altamont Pass on a recent Sunday, the wind turbines stood erect like milky white egrets soaring tall in the horizon.

There are nearly 5,000 wind turbines spread out over tens-of-thousands of hilly acres that make up the Altamont Pass terrain, a mountain pass in the Diablo Range near Livermore, Calif., which separates the Bay Area's eastern edge from the Central Valley. It's about an hour's drive east of San Francisco.

The Altamont Pass Wind Farm
has the largest concentration
of wind turbines in the world. 
The Altamont Pass Wind Farm is one of the earliest wind farms in the U.S. -- it was commissioned in 1981 -- and it's the largest in terms of capacity. According to Wikipedia, Altamont Pass is "still the largest concentration of wind turbines in the world, with a capacity of 576 megawatts (MW), producing about 125 MW on average and 1.1 terawatt-hours (TWh) yearly."

For decades, the wind turbines have generated clean electricity -- wind energy -- for California thanks to the stiff winds that rake the Altamont Pass during the spring and summer seasons. Their installation came about following the energy crisis of the 1970s and in response to "favorable tax policies" for its investors.

Climbing the Altamont Pass.
On this warm, late-spring afternoon, the wind turbines dotting the summit at 1,009 feet (308 meters) provided a welcome distraction while driving the I-580 back to Oakland from the arid, dusty heat of the Central Valley.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

On the beauty of nature: the loveliness of quiet

Inside Golden Gate Park / The loveliness of quiet.

 "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."
 Ralph Waldo Emerson

At the entrance of
Shakespeare Garden.
One of my favorite swatches of nature hidden inside San Francisco's Golden Gate Park can be found around the corner from the entrance to Shakespeare Garden.

It's a short walk -- maybe, a couple hundred yards -- from the de Young Fine Arts Museum, where I visited on a recent Friday evening. What I saw during the evening's twilight made a wonderful impression on me.

A majestic eucalyptus
tree in Golden Gate Park
that's full of character.
There are majestic eucalyptus and redwood trees that are full of character, some beautiful patches of green grass, colorful wildflowers, and a nice walking path that includes cobble stones. It's all topped off by a comfortable, brown wooden bench to sit down upon and enjoy a contemplative moment of thought or, perhaps, read a book or write in a journal. Best of all, it's peaceful and quiet. You can actually hear yourself think. Sometimes, the best things in life are still free.

Never underestimate the loveliness of quiet.

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sharing knowledge and instilling good feelings

Across the U.S., May is traditionally a month for college graduation ceremonies. It's the season where commencement speakers share their knowledge of the world and instill good feelings in graduating seniors -- and there are some seven million students graduating from colleges and universities this year alone.

Each year, the President of the United States gives a commencement address at one of the nation's military academies like West Point or Annapolis. On Wednesday, Barack Obama will use his commencement address at West Point Military Academy to lay out a broad vision of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future. Earlier this month, the well-known tennis commentator Mary Carillo spoke to graduates -- including her daughter -- at Elon College in North Carolina, and the esteemed jazz musician and educator Wynton Marsalis addressed graduates at Tulane University in New Orleans. Both are excellent communicators. Meanwhile, closer to my home, the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi addressed the graduating class at the University of California, Berkeley.

Politicians and entertainers are often asked to give commence speeches because not only are they well known public figures, they're at ease being in front of large crowds of people. They're naturals.

Last week, the world famous, nine-time Grammy Award-winning soul artist John Legend, who is also a philanthropist and Penn alumnus, returned to his alma mater to receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree. Legend also delivered the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, described by USA Today as being "funny, moving and musical," and he even worked some song lyrics into his speech.

"The reason I'm here, the reason I've had such a wonderful journey so far, is that I've found love. Yes, love," said Legend, who first visited the Ivy League campus as a high school senior named John Stephens in 1995. "We were all made to love. And I've found that we live our best lives, we are at our most successful, not simply because we're smarter than everyone else, or because we hustle harder. Not because we become millionaires more quickly. The key to success, the key to happiness, is opening your mind and your heart to love. Spending your time doing things you love and with people you love."

Legend's musical pedigree is rich in diversity -- he's worked with Herbie Hancock, The Roots and Kanye West, among many -- and, lately, one of his songs, "All of Me," has gained in popularity, too.

I came across Legend's wonderful commencement address the other day -- a link to it appeared on my Facebook news feed. I spent some time reading it -- absorbing its message -- and it really resonated with me. Legend had a lot of important things to say to the University of Pennsylvania graduates, and he connected a lot of dots, too.

I urge all of you to take a few minutes to read over John Legend's commencement address with focus and passion and courage. And, if you are so moved, click on the above link to watch Legend and listen to his words of wisdom.

"Thank you. Thank you so much. Good morning. And congratulations!
Now I'll try to be brief this morning. As a musician, this is about 10 hours before I normally go to work, so I'm gonna need a nap soon. And you've got degrees to receive.
And I also have a feeling some of you are already tired of me. The thing about pop radio in America, somehow they've scientifically determined that the public is only capable of liking the same 10 songs at any given time, so they simply play those songs over and over and over until you're finally completely exasperated. Then they move on ...
I've had a 10-year career as a solo artist and none of my songs has ever been one of those 10 songs. Until this moment. And now "all of you, are so over me, you're tired of hearing that I went to Penn. Why'd they bring him back again?" (sung to the tune of "All of Me" chorus)
That was my humblebrag way of saying I have the biggest song in the country. Very artful, wouldn't you say?
But, honestly, I am truly humbled and honored and grateful to be here at the commencement of one of the finest universities on the planet. I first visited this campus as a high school senior named John Stephens in 1995 -- 19 years ago -- and I would have never thought at that moment that I would be standing here as John Legend, speaking to you today.
The reason I'm here, the reason I've had such a wonderful journey so far, is that I've found love. Yes, love. We were all made to love. And I've found that we live our best lives, we are at our most successful, not simply because we're smarter than everyone else, or because we hustle harder. Not because we become millionaires more quickly. The key to success, the key to happiness, is opening your mind and your heart to love. Spending your time doing things you love and with people you love.
My life could have gone differently though. At first, I had a pretty good childhood. I grew up in a small blue-collar city called Springfield, Ohio. I was surrounded by family, including two loving parents who cared so much about our education that they home-schooled us for several years during grade school. And they took the time to teach us more than academics. They taught us about character, about what it meant to live a good life.
My father often talked to us about his definition of success. He told us that it wasn't measured in money and material things, but it was measured in love and joy and the lives you're able to touch -- the lives you're able to help. And my parents walked the walk. They gave of themselves to our church. They took in foster kids and helped the homeless, even though we didn't have much money ourselves.
Growing up in the Stephens house also meant you were immersed in art and music and encouraged to be creative. We had a piano and a drum kit in the house. I begged to take piano lessons when I was 4. I started singing in the church choir and in school plays by the time I was 7. So I fell in love with music at a very young age.
My family was like a model family in our church and local community. My parents were leaders, raising intelligent, talented kids in a loving environment. We even had a little singing group called the "Stephens 5."
But things started to fall apart when I was 10. My maternal grandmother passed away that year when she was only 58 years old, and her death devastated my family. She was our church organist, and on Sundays after church, I would go to her house just to hang out with her. She would make chicken and collard greens and corn bread. And she would teach me how to play gospel piano. She was one of my favorite people on the planet.
She and my mother were also very close, and her death sent my mother into a deep depression that eventually tore our family apart. My world was shattered. My parents got divorced. My mother disappeared into over a decade of drugs and despair. And I was confused and disoriented.
After the initial shock of my family breaking apart, my outward response wasn't very emotional. I coped by being stoic and seemingly unaffected. I thought if I didn't expose myself to any more pain and vulnerability, I could never get hurt. If I didn't fall in love, no one could ever betray me like that again.
I busied myself with school work and lots of activities, and tried not to think too much about my family situation, tried to avoid pain whenever possible. A big reason I only applied to colleges on the east coast was to make sure I had no reminders of home in my daily life.
The only thing I allowed myself to really love without reservation was music. I put all of my passion into it. I spent so much of my spare time working on it, that I barely got any sleep. At night, I was doing community choir, show choir and musicals in high school; a cappella and a church choir in college. I wrote my own songs. Played in talent shows. I put a lot of energy into becoming a better artist, a better writer and a better performer. And in some ways, it made me a better student and a better leader. Because when you actually care about something, you want to lead. Apathy's not so cool any more.
When I graduated from Penn, I had many of the traditional opportunities in front of you now, and I took a job at the Boston Consulting Group. But I couldn't shake my passion for music. I had followed the path that the Penn graduate was supposed to take, but I didn't fall in love. I immediately started thinking about how I could leave BCG and become a full-time musician. I spent hours during the day preparing powerpoint presentations and financial models. And I spent almost as many hours at night writing songs and performing at small gigs around New York and Philadelphia.
I always believed that my big break would come sooner rather than later. In fact, from 1998, while I was still at Penn, to early 2004, I spent each of those years always thinking that I would get that big record deal within the next few months. I always thought my moment was just around the corner. But I was rejected by all the major labels; some of them rejected me multiple times. I played for all the giants of the business -- Clive Davis, L.A. Reid, Jimmy Iovine, you name it. And all of them turned me down.
But I did find a young producer from Chicago named Kanye West who believed in me. Kanye happened to be the cousin of my good friend DeVon Harris, a classmate and roommate of mine here at Penn. DeVon introduced me to Kanye in 2001, and we've been working together ever since. Our collaboration has been a huge part of my career, and it had a lot to do with me finally getting a major recording contract in 2004.
Now, Kanye and I have very different personalities, as you might have guessed. But what unites us is our true love for music and art. We love to create, and at no point in our creative process do we stress about what will sell or what's already popular. We think about making something beautiful, something special, something we can be proud of. We truly do this because we love it. We put all of ourselves into it.
And it turns out that love requires that level of commitment from you. Half-doing it is not doing it right. You have to go all in. And yes, your personal relationships require that too.
I know what it's like to be all ego in your 20s. I know what it's like to be selfish and just focus on your immediate wants and desires. I know what it's like to protect your heart from pain and disappointment. I know what it means to be all about the rat race and winning.
But years from now, when you look back on your time here on earth, your life and your happiness will be way more defined by the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. You'll get much more joy out of depth, not breadth. It's about finding and keeping the best relationships possible with the people around you. It's about immersing yourself in your friendships and your family. It's about being there for the people you care about, and knowing that they'll be there for you.
I know. It's not easy to go all in on love. I'm 35 and I'm married and I'm still learning how to do this completely. But I've found someone who makes me want to try, someone who makes me want to take that risk. And it's made all the difference.
Now, I've already talked about the power of love in your work and your personal lives. But I also want to talk about how love changes the world. There are 7 billion other people out there. Seven billion strangers. I want you to consider what it means to love them, too. What does it mean to love people we don't know, to see the value in every single person's life?
Think about that. It's a pretty radical notion. It means your daughter or son, your neighbor's daughter or son and the daughters and sons of people who live thousands of miles away, all deserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It means we let go of fear and see each other's humanity. It means we don't see Trayvon Martin as a walking stereotype, a weaponized human. We see him as a boy who deserves the chance to grow into a man, even if he makes boyish mistakes along the way. It means American lives don't count more than Iraqi lives. It means we see a young Palestinian kid not as a future security threat or demographic challenge, but as a future father, mother and lover. It means that the nearly 300 kidnapped girls in Nigeria aren't just their problem. They're "our" girls too. It's actually quite a challenge to love humankind in this way.
Professor Cornel West gives us a word for what this kind of love looks like in public. That word is justice.
If you're committed to loving in public, it requires you opening your eyes to injustice, to see the world through the eyes of another. This is not a passive activity. You have to read. You have to travel to other neighborhoods, other parts of the world. You may have to get your hands dirty. You have to allow people to love you, and you have to love them back
My team and I met a young girl named Rose from a small, impoverished village in Ghana. When you're working with development organizations and visiting the communities they work in, you're not really supposed to single out one child to fall in love with. You're supposed to stick to the program and focus on the interventions that lift the community as a whole. But we couldn't help it. We fell in love with Rose. Something about the spark in her eyes and her indomitable spirit made us want to go the extra mile to help her. So we decided to use our own funds to sponsor her tuition to secondary school.
We've stayed in touch with her over the past seven years, and we're so proud of what she's done individually. But we're also happy that she inspired us to formalize and expand our scholarship program to many girls in communities like hers throughout Africa, communities where the parents often invest in the boys' secondary education, but don't do the same for the girls.
In my travels around the world, I've looked in the eyes of many young girls and boys from Africa to Southeast Asia to Harlem, kids who had big dreams and needed someone to believe in them and invest in their future, in their education.
What would our schools look like if we were committed to love in public? If we cared about every kid in our school system, we would make sure they didn't go to school hungry. We would make sure they had proper health care and counseling. We would make sure they had excellent teachers in every classroom. We would make sure we weren't unfairly suspending them and criminalizing them for minor behavioral problems. We'd make sure all of them had the resources they need.
Every religion has this idea of philanthropy, love for mankind, at its core. But you shouldn't do this just to make sure you get into the "pearly gates." Look at the work of Marty Seligman here at Penn, who has literally written the book on happiness. Look at the work of Adam Grant, whom I hear is the most highly rated professor here: He has the data to show that giving works. There's an increasing body of research and knowledge that tells us that living a life of love and compassion is the true path to success and contentment.
So what's going to stop you? What's going to stand in your way? What's going to keep you from achieving your success? What will prevent you from going all in on love?
We're taught when we're young that the opposite of love is hate. But it's not. Hate is a byproduct. Hate is a result. Being a hater isn't cool. Nobody wants that. But hate comes from one thing: fear. And fear is the opposite of love. It's not a coincidence that when we talk about bigotry, we often talk in terms of fear: homophobia, xenophobia. Fear is what blinds us. Fear is corrosive. Fear makes us hold back. It whispers to us, tells us that we'll fail. It tells us that our differences are too much to overcome. Fear locks us in place. It starts fights. It causes wars.
And fear keeps us from loving. Even though we're made to love, we're often afraid to love. We're afraid of being hurt deeply. Afraid of feeling the pain I went through when my parents divorced. But you're never going to really love something or someone unless you put those fears aside. Don't hold back. Being in love means being ready to give freely and openly, and being ready to risk something. Risking pain and disappointment, conquering your fears, and becoming anew.
Alice Walker once said, "The more I wonder, the more I love." Love calls you to open your eyes, to seek, to search, to wonder.
Love is all-consuming -- it infiltrates your body, it's what allows you to experience bliss, joy and true friendship. You'll be more disappointed when something goes wrong. You might fall harder. But the only way you'll reach any height in life and in love is by taking the chance that you might fall.
You have to give your all.
Yes, I've been not-so-subtly working in my song lyrics. And some might think it's all a bit too much. Here I am, this R&B singer with an album called Love in the Future, who's recently married and wrote the biggest love song of the year, and what did I choose to talk about? Love. It's so corny, isn't it. It's much cooler to be detached and apathetic, right? We all like a little snark and cynicism and irony, especially from our favorite artists and comedians and writers. I get it.
But that cool detachment only gets you so far. Passion gets you a lot further. It makes you a better entrepreneur, a better leader, a better philanthropist, a better friend, a better lover.
I want you to live the best life you can. You can be world-changers. When you leave here today, you're going to be looking for a lot of things: security, money, friendships, sex, all kinds of things. But the most important thing you'll find is love.
So love your self, love your work, love the people around you. Dare to love those who are different from you, no matter where they're from, what they look like, and who they love. Pursue this life of love with focus and passion and ambition and courage. Give it your all. And that will be your path to true success.
Congratulations to the Class of 2014 and thank you so much!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A few thoughts on being a good listener

The greatest gift you can give another
is the purity of your attention.

Every day is a new day blessed with opportunities. As a social medium, Facebook affords us with an ideal an opportunity to exchange our thoughts and feelings with our family, neighbors and friends, both near to us as well as many distant time zones away. 

Part of the art of meaningful conversation, I believe, is in being a good listener -- even when we are socializing via Facebook. One friend of mine once expressed to me that I am tolerant and open minded, and for those reasons, they felt comfortable sharing a conversation with me. Mind you, we have never had the pleasure of meeting each other in person, yet there was a level of comfort and trust between us.

As I have gained the friendship of many different and wonderful people over the past few years, thanks to Facebook, I am very proud to call as dear friends those who come from many different countries around the world besides the U.S., including: several Asia Pacific nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam; India, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Brazil, and also many eastern and western European countries, such as Serbia, Great Britain and Belgium.

My group of dear friends resembles a microcosm of the United Nations. Among them, they also include many different faiths, too: Catholics and Protestants, Western and Eastern Christians, Muslims, Orthodox, Buddhists and Jews, too. I am blessed to be a part of a wonderful circle of cultural and religious diversity.

I consider myself color-blind when it comes to race and nationality, and I show the same love, respect and courtesy to all of my friends regardless of the color of their skin, their gender or their sexual preference. Because of my tolerance and open-mindedness, I have gained the trust of many of my friends, something that makes me very proud. And, as such, many come to me in confidence to share their thoughts, their hopes, their dreams and to seek my opinion, guidance and feedback. It has been a privilege to be thought of as a mentor and tutor, and I thank each and every one of you for the gift of your time.

Whether we realize it or not, each of us is blessed with the ability to be a good listener. 

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force," it has been said. "The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

Because we validate each other's lives with our attention, I highly encourage each and every one of you to take the time to listen during the conversations you have with your family, your neighbors and your friends. Each of us has the potential to be a difference maker in another person's life. After all, as it's been said: "The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention."

In closing, my dear friends, I would like to leave you with a thought about listening from the 20th century American scholar and author William Arthur Ward, whose books about religion include: Fountains of Faith and Thoughts of a Christian Optimist. 

Ward wrote:

• Before you speak, listen.

• Before you write, think.

• Before you spend, earn.

• Before you invest, investigate.

• Before you criticize, wait.

• Before you pray, forgive.

• Before you quit, try.

• Before you retire, save.

• Before you die, give.